Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Return to Ravnica Impressions

I'm operating from the Return to Ravnica spoiler on mtgsalvation.com.

The original Ravnica was known for a brilliant Limited environment and the mechanics are generally geared toward this. The result of which were nine barely memorable abilities and one that was so strong that it impacted Magic's oldest format, Vintage. This, to me, is not an excellent block, long term. It did a great many things for the game however and got players back in after the debacle of Mirrodin and boredom of Kamigawa.

Nevertheless; when was the last time you saw a deck using any other mechanic from Ravnica aside from Dredge?

No, Ravnica got most of its mileage from a series of really strong or useful cards, ranging from the common at Lightning Helix, to the rare, like Loxodon Hierarch. It also benefited from a series of strong 'personality' cards: namely the guild leaders and their head monsters. Not all of them were what I'd call good (I'm looking at you, Ulasht, the Hate Seed) but they were at least interesting and give the block character! Players could feel like they were interacting with a new world.

Which is one reason I'm worried about the use of Planeswalkers in the latest block.

I understand that Planeswalkers are part of a branding thing and need to be present in each block but I think they're doing a disservice to the community at large by shoehorning them into every storyline. Innistrad was a mess from a story perspective and Planeswalkers were a big chunk of the reason why: they were a distraction from the main action and had no impact on the actual storyline, despite being injected into the scene.

Things would just be better if the Planeswalkers just visited. Sure, from time to time let them participate but otherwise, they ought to stay out of things. On top of that, does anyone really need Jace 4.0 (or Jace Zero as Fuz and I are calling him. So that's Jace, Jace II the FU, Cinnamon Jace and now Jace Zero for those of you keeping track at home.)

Now all that said, the upside does seem to be that characters old and new do seem to be a focus in the new set and hopefully that will help give Return to Ravnica some of the same zing.

As far as the abilities go, the Izzet one, Overload, seems like it's the most versatile. Solid in early game, a blowout in late game and extremely one-sided so it could be very ugly. I like it and so far it feels appropriately costed--which means, challenging for a player like me to work with.

Detain, which belongs to Azorus, seems like the most powerful. Turning off a card for a turn can be a pretty crippling maneuver, especially in colors that have answers to everything: it just gives them more time, which is what they can use best. What I like about it: quiet, powerful, very representative of the guild. What I don't like about it: It's extremely good in a color combination that doesn't need it.

I've heard that Unleash, the Rakdos mechanic, was the hardest one to balance. I can see that: making the R/B tribe aggressive but allowing for situations where defense is called for seems like it would be hard. Out of the five, it's the most workmanlike though: Put counter on dude, swing. Don't put counter on dude, hold off.

Of course the problem is that the right answer, at least so far, is always: put counter on dude, swing.

Next is the Salvage mechanic, or: We are really, really sorry about Dredge. This mechanic is difficult to get excited about, because like the Soulshift mechanic of Kamigawa, it's frequently overcosted. For example: Sluceway Scorpion costs 4 to cast for a 2/2 deathtouch creature. Even at common, that's expensive. Then, if it dies, you can pay 3 more to put two 1/1 counters on a creature. Total: 7 mana for a +2 on one creature. Dreg Mangler seems a bit better: a 3/3 with haste for 3--but to put 3 counters on a creature you now pay 5 mana. One can't even really make the argument for flat out discarding or milling your own creatures to use this ability because Salvage is so expensive to use.

From the ability casting costs, it would appear that Wizards is trying to nudge G/B into a midgame style deck but the cards themselves don't feel to exciting yet. There's still over 100 cards to reveal though, so I'm not too concerned and I have to admit, it does reflect the life/death cycle the Golgari are supposed to be about.

Finally, we have the Populate mechanic. Oh, Selesnya, why don't you ever get any love? The previous mechanic was Convoke and it was bad because (among other reasons) creatures aren't free and they need to do more than make your overcosted-but-not-impactful spells cheaper. So here was a chance for redemption!

There will be no redemption. Populate will rely on token creation, meaning that unlike the other 4 mechanics, it's not good on it's own, it requires enablers. It's now tacked on to whatever 'good' spell you had except your good spell is more expensive, making it less good, in order to give you a token to make the spell worth playing, as you see with Eyes in the Skies.

In addition, tokens are frequently tiny creatures without abilities. In the instances where they aren't, Populate, by itself, is a meaningless add on. If I have 5, 4/4 flying angel tokens, getting a 6th isn't meaningful. I've either won or lost by then.

So instead you have a great card like Rootborn Defenses, which you're using to make creatures indestructible but can't (or have no need) to Populate with. Or worse, you have one token and in response the opponent kills it, rendering your Populate meaningless again.

Which means that it is a mechanic that doesn't matter; and if the guild is focused on growth, then, while spiritually true to the guild, the mechanic isn't what people will choose the Selsenyan guild for. They'll pick it for all the awesome things that make tokens without requiring a Populate, like Precinct Captain, and ignore the rest.

Still, over 100 cards to reveal. I could be wrong.


  1. Great writeup! I'm trying to pick between Azorius, Izzet, and Golgari. From the reveals, it's feeling like Azorius might be the most reliable, but Golgari is getting some interesting cards like Lotleth Troll and Rapid Decay. Izzet feels a bit impractical or unreliable.

    What are your impressions now that more cards have come out?

    1. Well, first I'd like to take my moment in the sun for calling the enchantment subtheme a few months ago...

      /because why not?

      After that: I think you might be underestimating Izzet: all of the effects are one sided and the big ones are BIG. If they can ramp the mana up, it should be a contender.

      The big tricks are in the gold cards again but everything seems to be overpriced. On the upside, it's consistently overpriced and it doesn't seem like any guild has a real edge over the other in Sealed/Limited, at least not any edge that they don't usually have.

      But I'm with you: Blue/White seems like the strongest combination and I don't know that there's enough disruption to knock them off.